Jem Cohen

Jem Cohen discusses his newsreels about Occupy Wall Street

Left: Chris Marker’s symbol. Right: Jem Cohen, Gravity Hill NEWSREEL No. 2, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 3 minutes 36 seconds.

Jem Cohen is a distinguished filmmaker whose work is currently on view in New York at the Jewish Museum and in the group show “September 11” at MoMA PS1. Below, Cohen discusses the short newsreels he has recently made about Occupy Wall Street. The newsreels are screened, one per week, before features at the IFC Center and are also available here.

I WENT TO WALL STREET ON SEPTEMBER 17, the first day of the proposed occupation, and to be frank, I left dispirited. There’d been a call for twenty thousand to descend on the area––rather high hopes––but what I saw outside of the absurd stretches of barricades was largely empty streets and a few hundred protesters at Bowling Green going through what looked to be the usual motions. I roamed around, shot a roll of Super 8, and left. A few days later, I heard people had actually set up camp in nearby Zuccotti Park, so I went down with friends who wanted to deliver supplies, and this time it seemed more interesting. By my next visit it felt really interesting and I knew my initial impression had been way off base. Something was happening down there.

Soon after, John Vanco, who runs the IFC Center, asked what was going on film-wise; he said, “Where are the newsreels?” I told him OWS was being documented to an almost ridiculous degree. Many long-form documentaries would probably result and there were already short advocacy pieces being made, propaganda for the cause and not necessarily inventive on a filmmaking level. But the notion of the newsreel began to rattle around in my head and suddenly I was making my own. Happily, they’re showing them now at the IFC, like theaters did in the 1930s and ’40s. I see it as one way to bring some sense of what the movement is like to a random sector of people who aren’t necessarily going down to Zuccotti.

The films are modest, small observations rather than broad declarations. There’s nothing definitive about them and they’re sometimes bumpy, searching experiments, like the movement itself. Some were shot in a day, cut the next, and just put out there. I didn’t want them to be precious. As a “film person,” I’m also just finding my footing with high-def digital––recent technologies that allow immediate turnaround proved irresistible here. That said, the omnipresence of HD, which can make everything look slick and “cinematic,” concerns me. Some of the pro-movement pieces I’ve seen have such a polished veneer; they speak in the language of advertising. While I understand the urge to make TV-ready tools that might be effective for a mass audience, I’m leery of both the prettification and the very idea that everything––including a movement inherently critical of corporate takeover––demands “branded messaging.” Luckily there are other traditions; each of my films is dedicated to a deeply engaged yet deeply renegade filmmaker (Dziga Vertov, Humphrey Jennings, Joris Ivens, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker).

My concentration has been on making simple documents of a movement unfolding in daylight, rain, darkness, and in a moment of vital expansion––the Times Square mobilization of October 15. Of course, it’s never actually simple, especially with a movement changing so rapidly––there are things going on that are so inspiring and others that are really a drag. Do you document them both? And how do you do it without betraying either ideals or actualities? I am, after all, making these films in solidarity, as a participant, but I have real qualms about the suppression of ambiguity that almost invariably marks agitprop. And I don’t have a plan about how to jack these into the frontal lobe of the masses; my priority has just been to make and deliver them, both to the theater and online. Contrary to current belief, not all filmmakers are made to be publicists . . .

The people at Zuccotti Park are tired of having cameras shoved in their faces. The constant watching and recording––it’s curse and blessing. But hopefully everyone can understand that documentation has to happen to bring this movement to the wider world. The mainstream media cycle is inherently against focused attention and complexity. It’s already falling off, another reason I feel we have to make these things for reasons and angles and timelines outside of the usual ones. I’m interested in how these newsreels will look twenty years from now.

Chris Marker sent a symbol of a cat in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s a humble, beautiful reminder that a logo can be a sign instead of a brand, a measure of camaraderie rather than targeted marketing. It’s also a reminder that even those who’ve witnessed countless such struggles, with all their naïveté, stumbling, and repetition of past mistakes, can still find hope and fascination when some small action catches and flares into unforeseen possibility.